Shifting Identities of Nigerian Yorubas
in Dahomey and Republic of Benin c. 1940 - c. 2004
Jean-Luc Martineau, SEDET - Université Paris 7 - Denis Diderot
Right at the beginning of the colonial
process, the circulation across the French-British colonial border
was interrupted. The east-west roads in the Yoruba region were almost
closed by the British coloniser. Already disorganized by the Yoruba
civil wars and the end of slaves trade, the whole intra-Yoruba traffic
was diverted to Lagos instead of Porto-Novo or Ouidah. The Yoruba east
part of Dahomey on one side and the Nigerian Yoruba provinces on the
other one were to develop on their own. Apart anti-fiscal migrations
in rural areas, trans-border migrations between Nigeria and Dahomey
and their consequences on processes of identity building have not been
really studied. In this paper, we propose to focuse on Nigerian Yoruba
communities in Dahomey / Republic of Benin and their shifting identities
c. 1940 - c. 2004.
Even though it is difficult to appreciate the volume of the migrations,
trans-border movements to Dahomean towns started again after the second
World War. French colonial archives (Porto-Novo and Aix-en-Provence)
as well as the British ones (NAI and PRO in Kew Garden) are quite poor
on that subject. Files about legal and illegal trade movements, markets'
women or criminal cases are the only ones to mention "Nigerians" but
regardless to their regional origin. Private archives and interviews
are our main sources. Informations have been collected in 1995 and
1999 and will be completed during a two-month stay (in july-august
Since the mid-century, Nigerian migrants settled in Cotonou and Porto-Novo
are locally organised by leaders who remain connected to their Nigerian
hometowns up to the present days. Nevertheless most of the newcomers
had to renegotiate their identity in Dahomey then Republic of Benin.
One striking thing to be notice is the diversity of cases in the shifting
identity processes. The moment of the migration, the policy of the
Republic of Dahomey/Benin toward Nigerians, the policy of the Nigerian
embassy in Cotonou, the length of the stay and the cultural environment
of the migrants strongly determined the forms and degree of integration
in the Benin urban society.
The Offa people in Cotonou for instance chose to become Benin citizens
long time ago and the Offa newcomers had been invited to integrate
this process of integration since then, joining the Offa Descendants'
Union. The Oyo, Ede and Ibadan as well as the Ijebu-Epe people although
sometime settled in Cotonou or Porto-Novo for decades, still considered
themselves as Nigerians with monthly meeting and active membership
to local, regional or pan-yoruba Descendants'Unions. The Oyo-Yoruba
association in Cotonou has been ruled by "Baba Oyo" up to
the beginning of the 1990's. His influence was strengthened by Kerekou's
policy which forbade ethnic (here sub-ethnic) manifestations during
the 1970's-80's. The Yorubas themselves had to gather with Igbo and
Hausas in the Nigerian Association of Benin. The federation was also
encouraged by the Nigerian embassy as a way to identify and to control
migrants with its "embassy ID cart".
The end of the anti-ethnic policy gave the different subgroups (Oyo,
Ede, Ogbomoso, Epe or Osogbo) the opportunity to organise themselves
on their own and to shift back to their hometown identity if never
forgotten. Self constituted age groups also organised migrants. The
process of democratisation allowed references to the ancestors'city
which are now clearly promoted. The death of "Baba Oyo" accelerate
the process of disintegration of the Association of the Nigerian Yoruba
in Cotonou although Ade Adewunmi's attempts to keep everybody together.
In spite of differences, what occurs from all these processes is the
strong symbolic (sometimes more) relation kept with the Nigerian ancestors'
city. Recently an original experience was initiated when an attempt
was made to strengthen the Yoruba trans-border relations. The association
of Nigerian Oyo migrants in Porto-Novo promoted the creation of an
Oyo born oba in Porto-Novo. Obviously, this attempt which found its
origins in Oyo was was seen as a foreign initiative and it has not
been welcome by the " collectivités " of Benin Yorubas
of Porto-Novo. It is anyway a sign of the ability of Yoruba migrants
to renegotiate their identity according to the needs of times.